I Served The King Of England

I Served The King Of England

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Jan Díte is a “small man from a small world.” Despite this he has big ambitions – and here he tells his story. We meet him (played by Oldrich Kaiser) in his declining years after he has just been released after a 15-year jail term, but it’s clear the spark of wit is still with him as he flirts with a young girl he meets in the forest and begins to do up the wreck of a pub he has been sent to live in.

As Jan tells his tale in flashback, the episodes have a feel of a lavish fairytale, as his memory fills each scene with sheen and gloss. He begins as the humblest of train station sausage sellers but quickly moves up to waiting on tables, toiling for tips in a down-at-heel pub where his spry manner means he has a winning way with the clients. In moments of boredom he tosses loose change on the floor, making him, for a moment, the tallest in the room as rich businessmen scrabble about for it.

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Early on, he forms a friendship with a man named Walden (Marián Labuda), who has a penchant for spreading his cash on the carpet to show how wealthy he is. Jan sees this as the perfect sport and aims to do likewise, since “Money can lay the world at your feet”. In addition to working his way through a succession of pubs and hotels he also has liaisons with a string of girls and proves a passionate and creative lover.

As his life continues, the political world shifts with the shadow of war and finally its outbreak, but somehow Dite manages to rise above it all, since, like the protagonist of director Jim Menzel’s earlier work Closely Observed Trains, it is sex and success that whet his appetite rather than politics.

Menzel has crafted a visual extravaganza. There are beautiful touches of magic realism, such as when Walden’s money rises up from the carpet, and many of the film’s flashback moments feel like mini comedy classics in their own right. His scene composition is such that it emphasises the physical comedy, brought to life by an excellent performance from Ivan Barnev as the young Jan.

Even as the film becomes more serious in tone, with the impending war and its outbreak, there is still plenty of room for humour, especially when Jan falls for a young German girl. Menzel's tone remains playful and there is a similar sort of mockery of Nazism - and political agendas in general - as that employed in The Producers, while its heart and pathos recalls the magnificence of Jean De Florette.

There is a serious point underlying the laughs, as the older Jan comes to realise that in his desire for fortune he may have lost sight of his humanity. It is the scenes with the older man that are the trickiest, since they sit rather uneasily with his imaginings from the past. While the acting from Kaiser is excellent, these interludes lack the cohesive exuberance of the scenes of him in his youth.

This film has an epic, almost mythical sweep, highlighting the resilience of the Czech nation as seen through the eyes of one man. A crowd-pleaser that deserves to reach a wide audience.

Reviewed on: 23 Aug 2007
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The history of Prague recounted through one man's story, full of glamour and danger.
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Chris ***1/2

Director: Jirí Menzel

Writer: Jirí Menzel, based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal

Starring: Ivan Barnev, Oldrich Kaiser, Julia Jentsch, Martin Huba, Mari Labuda, Milan Lasica

Year: 2006

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: Czech Republic, Slovakia


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